Learning in West Africa

by Marya Wethers

Marya Wethers

Marya Wethers

On October 29, 2010 I embarked on my first trip to West Africa, made possible through the support of NPN’s Mentorship and Leadership Initiative grant. My only prior venture to Africa was an impossibly brief visit to Tunis spent mostly inside of dark theaters struggling to avoid succumbing to jet lag. This time I was heading to Bamako, Mali to attend Danse l’Afrique Danse biennial competition and festival of contemporary African dance from October 29-November 6, 2010. Following the festival from November 7-11, 2010 I would travel to Dakar, Senegal to conduct site visits and introductory meetings and studio visits with local artists. This research trip to Mali and Senegal was full of truly incredible experiences for me. The collective experiences had a tremendous impact on me and deepened my interest in and commitment to supporting artists and work from the African Continent. The trip was also personally significant and immensely meaningful to me as a way to connect with my own sense of what it means to be a Black American, and how that identity is both reflected and contradicted in the complex realities of Africa.

For the past two years, as Program Manager of Dance Theater Workshop (now New York Live Arts), I have managed our international program, The Suitcase Fund. Founded by DTW in 1985, The Suitcase Fund has focused on international exchange in Eastern Europe since 1991, thanks to generous and consistent support from the Trust for Mutual Understanding. This year, The Suitcase Fund received funding to initiate projects in Africa and the Middle East. Although I had existing relationships with a small network of contemporary African choreographers in New York City, I needed to broaden my awareness and familiarity of contemporary African dance makers and the realities of the available resources and conditions within which they are working.  I also needed to develop new connections and networks with cultural workers and arts advocates in the African Diaspora in order to create effective partnerships with artists and organizations on the continent.

At Danse L'Afrique in Mali

At the Danse l’Afrique Danse Festival I was able to attend more than 33 performances over six very full days at locations throughout the bustling city of Bamako. With so many artists and manager/producers in attendance from various regions of Africa, as well as Western Europe, I had the opportunity to see work by contemporary African choreographers and meet numerous dance artists and cultural organizers. Each night after the performances, festival attendees and locals would gather on the Rue Princess, a short strip of bars and a café, for lively discussions about the performances and art and culture, to chat with colleagues and meet new friends, all happening amongst site-specific performances by young artists from Donko Seko/Kettly Noel’s “Je danse donc je suis” program and the revelry of live music on an outdoor stage. The festival atmosphere was charged with artistic energy and social merriment late into the night.

Ecole des Sables, Senegal

Ecole des Sables, Senegal

Following the festival in Mali, I traveled to Senegal to conduct site visits and meet with local artists. The primary purpose of the visit was to meet with choreographer Andreya Ouamba, Artistic Director of Association/Cie 1er Temps dance company, based in Dakar, in preparation for an upcoming Suitcase Fund project in partnership with his AEx-Corps workshop training program for African choreographers and dancers. With Andreya’s assistance I was also able to schedule introductory meetings and studio visits with several local artists and visit Ecole des Sables, a center for contemporary african dance founded by Germaine Acogny. Ecole des Sables is a 2.5 hour drive outside of Dakar, nestled in the remote fishing village of Toubab Dialaw.

This research trip to Mali and Senegal was tremendously impactful in several ways: the information and experiences enriched my awareness and familiarity with contemporary African dance makers. I was able to meet with several artists, organizers, and producers face to face in both Bamako and Dakar to hear about their choeographic work, projects, and/or organizations and learn about the systems, conditions, and resources of their particular country and region.

In addition to developing new relationships I was also able to expand existing relationships. The choreographer Andreya Ouamba also attended the festival in Mali and we had the chance to have an initial meeting about our upcoming Suitcase Fund project, as well as see performances together and discuss work to get a better understanding of each others’ perspectives and aesthetics, prior to our planning meetings together in his hometown of Dakar.

The Community Fund is made possible by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts (a federal agency), MetLife Foundation, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

July 2011

Past Issues